Illegal marijuana grows are stealing from California's scarce water – High Country News

As drought grips the Golden State, water thefts have increased to record levels. The most-common offender: illegal pot farms.  

Thieves break into water stations that provide water to California’s rural residents, like this one in Lancaster, located in Los Angeles County’s Antelope Valley.

Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

This story was originally published by CalMatters and is republished here by permission.

One day last spring, water pressure in pipelines suddenly crashed in California’s Antelope Valley, setting off alarms. Demand had inexplicably spiked, swelling to three and half times normal. Water mains broke open, and storage tanks were drawn down to dangerous levels. 

The emergency was so dire in the water-stressed desert area of Hi Vista, between Los Angeles and Mojave, that county health officials considered ordering residents to boil their tap water before drinking it.

“We said, ‘Holy cow, what’s happening?’” said Anish Saraiya, public works deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. 

It took a while for officials to figure out where all that water was going: Water thieves — likely working for illicit marijuana operations — had pulled water from remote filling stations and tapped into fire hydrants, improperly shutting off valves and triggering a chain reaction that threatened the water supply of nearly 300 homes.

As drought grips most of California, water thievery across the state has increased to record levels. Bandits in water trucks are backing up to rivers and lakes and pumping free water they sell on a burgeoning black market. Others, under cover of darkness, plug into city hydrants and top up. Thieves also steal water from homes, farms and private wells, and some even created an elaborate system of dams, reservoirs and pipelines during the last drought. Others are MacGyvering break-ins directly into pressurized water mains, a

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